Dr Jill Bolte (pronounced Boltee) Taylor is a remarkable woman. In 1996, she was at the top of her game as a neuroanatomist. One morning in December, over a period of five hours, all of that changed. Jill had a major stroke. As a ‘brain Doctor’, she recognized what was happening to her…as it happened. It affected her physically, emotionally, mentally and maybe most profound of all, spiritually.
Her book ‘My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey‘ chronicles her life prior to the stroke, during it and afterwards. This is a must-read book for everyone. Read on to find out why.
Before the stroke
Jill grew up with a brother who was 18 months older than her. Even as a child, she recognized that he didn’t function as she did. They reacted differently to events and saw the world in very different ways. Jill wanted to know why and this led her to a career studying how the brain works. She became a neuroanatomist – someone who studies the structure and function of the brain right down to its’ molecular level. Her brother was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and Jill concentrated her work to focus on how this common but little understood mental disorder affects the brain at a chemical level. She worked at Harvard University and for the organization NAMI (National Association for Mental Illness). Life was sweet.
On 10th December 1996, at 7 a.m., Jill was woken by her CD player and found she had a sharp pain behind her left eye. She had a history of migraines that hadn’t responded to medications. Thinking that exercise might clear her head, she got out of bed and climbed onto her exercise machine. She noticed that she felt dissociated and felt as if she was observing herself on the machine. She felt a little alarmed but not unduly so considering what was to follow.
She started her usual morning routine but when she turned on the shower, the water hitting the tub sounded like bullets going off. This did alarm her as she began to realise that something was seriously wrong. When her right arm suddenly went ‘dead’ and thumped lifelessly into her side, Jill knew for sure that she was having a stroke. Bizarrely, her first reaction was “How cool!” The Scientist in her was fascinated by what was happening to her. She was experiencing her own research first hand.
She began to alternate between ‘knowing’ what was happening to her and drifting into a quiet, peaceful place – but this was not an out-of-body experience. The stroke had occurred in the left side of her brain. This is the side that deals with details, numbers, facts, our own physical boundaries – all of the important things that we need to know and remember. All of the things that make us who we are. The quiet place was the right side of her brain, which was unharmed. This hemisphere is to do with intuition, feelings, awareness and seeing ‘the bigger picture’. Because Jill’s ‘personal boundaries’ were gradually being eroded by the bleed in her brain, at times she felt as if there was no end to her own existence. She ceased to perceive her physical body as where she ‘stopped’ and was intensely aware of what made her body the way it was. She knew she was fluid, cells and never ending – all functioning in such an amazing way…even though she was gradually losing the ability to do things that we take for granted every day.
Jill tries to get help
Jill knew that she had to get help and that her life was in grave danger. She was still alternating between periods of almost lucidity and the dreamlike ‘all knowing and peaceful’ state. While able to, she pulled the ‘phone towards her and knew that if she punched the keypad she could bring help. Trouble was, she couldn’t remember what a number was – let alone the sequence required. Still drifting ‘in and out’ she finally managed to remember the numbers but only as a series of squiggles. With immense effort and energy-sapping concentration, she wrote the squiggles down with her left hand. In her next lucid wave, she matched the squiggles to the squiggles on the keypad and miraculously got through to a Doctor colleague who was also a friend. She was amazed to hear his voice as he “…sounded like a Golden Retriever”. When she replied to him, her voice sounded just the same to her own ears, although in her head, she had clearly said “It’s Jill. I need help.” Although she couldn’t understand his reply, the right side of her brain recognized the care and worry in his tone and at that point she knew help was coming.
What had happened to her?
Jill had suffered an extremely rare form of stroke, a burst (Arteriovenous malformation). This is a ‘fault’ in her brain that she was born with but had never been discovered. The migraines which didn’t respond to medications were later thought to have been tiny bleeds. As the blood flooded over her brain cells, their functions were stopped, one by one.
What Jill learned from her stroke.
The right side of our brain is the quiet, contemplative, peaceful one. Those who meditate are taught to ‘still their minds’ and this means silencing what Jill calls ‘brain chatter’. This is the constant subconscious dialogue kept up by the left side of our brain. Jill’s stroke silenced her brain chatter and because of the damage to her left side, she was left with just her right side. This is why she was able to experience ‘nirvana’. The truth is that this wonderful state is with us all the time but we are barely aware of it because of the necessary day-to-day functioning of our practical and busy left side.
How to treat people with brain injury
From Jill’s experience, we should change many of the ways we care for those with compromised brain function. She couldn’t bear light in her eyes and yet part of the neurological exam, which is carried out endlessly, is to shine a torch in the persons’ eyes. She was desperate to sleep as the sensory input that she could not comprehend was exhausting. And yet people in hospital are routinely woken up early and kept awake for most of the day. When she went home, Jill woke up for 20 minutes and then slept for six hours!
Although Jill found it almost impossible to understand what people said to her, her intuitive right side recognized those who gave her energy and those who took hers away. Some medical workers spoke loudly to her as if she was deaf – she wasn’t. Others looked her in the eye and touched her gently, making her feel safe.
Leave your baggage behind
As she rehabilitated, which took eight years, Jill had to re-learn to be Jill. But it was a new Jill, not the woman she had been before. As she learned about her past and previous situations, she discovered that thinking about some things caused her to feel angry or upset. And so she chose not to think about them any more. She argues that we can all do that. If we choose to give these things room in our lives, they stay there. So don’t give them room!
Please read this book!
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey is a fascinating book and essential reading for anyone who is in the medical profession and / or caring for someone who has had a stroke or brain injury. It is also hugely enlightening for those in search of inner peace and a higher understanding of spirituality.
You can watch a video of Jill discussing her Stroke on Ted Talks